The Art of Leaving

Illustrated by Emily Cai

On November 7th, I traveled to New York with a group of friends to see Adrianne Lenker, singer-songwriter and frontwoman of rock band Big Thief, in concert at Webster Hall. It was a long time coming; we’d bought our tickets all the way back in June, even though the endless and unpredictable ebbs and flows of COVID made the prospect of a concert in November a total toss-up. When the time came, the more-than-minor miracle of the concert avoiding cancellation only elevated my excitement.

Plus, it was a great day. Emerging from the subway, I was met with a spectacularly pink sunset; I caught up with a good friend at Columbia a few hours before the show; and the fall frigidity remained meek enough to allow for strolling the city streets even as daylight waned. Upon entering the venue, though, I suddenly became intensely and inconsolably anxious. My chest hurt, breathing was difficult, and I could focus on absolutely nothing. Most frustratingly, I struggled to discern why. I’ve never done well with crowds, but I’ve survived—and enjoyed—masses far more overwhelming than the gaggle of soft-spoken twenty-somethings filling Webster Hall that night. All the same, my anxiety persisted. I forced myself to stay for the opening act and for Lenker’s first song before leaving. I was miserable the whole time.

I’m a prideful person. I’ve always held myself to pretty high standards, I’m a perfectionist sometimes to a fault, and I hate not seeing things through. When I dropped my class on invertebrates earlier this semester, it was only because the abysmal grade I would’ve received on the midterm would have hurt my pride more than the failure to complete the class. Often, hazy what ifs keep me strapped to situations I don’t enjoy, regardless of the stakes.

But I’ve been thinking of late about what it means to really, truly look out for oneself. This semester, my busiest thus far at Yale by a landslide, I’ve found myself comically grateful for blocks of free time longer than fifteen minutes; giddy about simplicities rendered rarities, like dinner with friends; and largely incapable of contextualizing immediate stressors within the much bigger picture of my life, both in college and beyond. And of course, none of this makes me unique—but it has made me exhausted. 

A friend of mine recently told me that being kind to oneself is a marker of maturity. I think he’s right. But what does it look like, in a culture obsessed with surface-level talk of self-care, to realistically and sustainably prioritize my needs—to be mature?

The answer, naturally, is complicated, and I haven’t figured it all out, let alone put it all into practice. But part of it, I think, is a willingness to leave. Walking alone to the L train from Webster Hall on the night of Lenker’s concert, I kicked myself for having been unable to stay, for having wasted money, for having worried and inconvenienced my friends. I also knew that I would have continued to be aggressively unhappy if I’d stayed. Moreover, I knew that I probably would have been better off leaving right away, instead of agonizing through the opening act and Lenker’s first song. My chest hurt the whole way home; who knows what “toughing it out” would have wrought?

Not every situation lends itself to this sort of impromptu departure. I’m not trying to be unrealistic. Sometimes the only way out is through. At the same time, I do think we place too many of our quotidian responsibilities into that category—that of required completion, no matter the misery. Classes we sit through while ill, interviews we endure despite disrespect, conversations characterized by disinterest, vacuity, or overwhelming gloom—what is the worst that would happen, really, if we chose to leave?

I still don’t know why I became so unexpectedly and unrelentingly anxious at Webster Hall. I do know that I rarely do my best work—be it social, academic, or extracurricular—when every bone in my body is yearning for an exit. And I have an inkling that I might have had a better time at Lenker’s concert if in the days preceding it, in situations causing me needless stress or dismay, I’d allowed myself to leave. 

The day before her November 7th concert, Adrianne Lenker cancelled a show in Woodstock due to food poisoning. When she took the stage at Webster Hall, before she played her first song, she reflected in a nervous but steady tone on the previous night’s cancellation. “I almost played it,” she said. “I’d never cancelled a show before, and it brought up a lot of things. But then I was like, why am I holding myself to these standards?” A man in the audience shouted, “I just quit my job!” The crowd erupted with applause. Lenker looked out with soft, satisfied eyes at the hundreds of people ready to receive her, even after, just one night earlier, she had made the decision to leave. “I feel much better now,” she said.

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